Before we leave Black history month, I want to address what we used to call brotherhood – I’ve looked for a gender-neutral term but I haven’t found one with the same resonance so I hope you’ll understand my use of the older term.
My commitment to brotherhood is baked into my genes, by the planes that attacked Pearl Harbor six months and five days after I was born, by Long Island Railroad trains next to our second story apartment that carried troops to fight overseas. My parents, friends and relatives talked about the exterminations of Jews in Germany. Before kindergarten, a word borrowed from German, I knew that believing in the brotherhood of mankind was essential to survival and that I was lucky, living peacefully in Brooklyn, cousins down the block, more nearby – one who taught the future Ruth Bader Ginsburg at a neighboring high school. I heard the cadences of the Old World in the generation that brought my parents up. They spoke Yiddish to each other but refused to teach me – I was to be American. They could give me that gift.
The first Black person I remember was Mrs. Hughes. As a small boy, I didn’t know a lot about racism, but in my memory, she and mother spoke in the language of friendship and respect. I was six when Jackie joined the Dodgers; he came to the team as a hero on a team of heroes. Some of the kids found themselves playing catch with Dodgers who lived on their blocks. We didn’t know yet about Jackie’s war service and were furious when we saw the “Jackie Robinson Story” in 1950 and learned how he had been treated. Somehow, we learned about his difficulty buying a house. The absolute knock down answer to whether someone would mind a Black neighbor was, “If it was Jackie Robinson.” There was no answer.
It was my privilege to invite Jesse Owens to come to our high school for a brotherhood award and I had the privilege of presenting it to him at a school assembly. He won four gold medals competing in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, an African-American under Hitler’s nose. He was a great athlete. We were about to learn that he was a great speaker. And I got to enjoy my classmates telling me how terrific he was. It was also clear that the African-American struggle to be treated as brothers, sisters and fellow citizens was the struggle of all of us for a decent, caring world in which we would all be safe, valued and respected.
We all have some agency in the things we believe but the time, place and social environment all contribute. I think I was lucky but I also think the world paid a huge price to teach people in my generation the value of brotherhood – not only the Holocaust but also World War II, the slaughter of soldiers and civilians in many theatres of war – the word theatre is an ordinary part of military language but war is not a play and it doesn’t happen in theatres – in many fields of battle the struggle to end the racism of Hitler and his Nazis took the lives of some 60 million men, women and children around the globe. Brotherhood is a great gift but only if we share it.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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